I got Christopher Alexander(et.al.)’s A Pattern Language from the library a few days back and am just blown away by it. This man had such humble, democratic insights into the task of the architect and a real feel for natural, beautiful,  human and humane living spaces. His book first proposes patterns for building cities, towns, neighborhoods. About the latter, we writes:

14. People need an identifiable spatial unit to belong to.

You can see that I devoured this because there is so much there for the Transition worker. Then it continues on to groups of buildings, houses and gardens, rooms (indoor and outdoor), alcoves, seats… smaller and smaller. Here’s one of my favorite patterns, one that, now that I have tended the fire for over three year, makes me nod and smile:

181. The Fire: There is no substitute for fire.

Alexander stresses the communal aspect of fire as he does for all his patterns. The patterns are always in service of people-living-together, whether in towns, neighborhoods, houses, room and gardens. It is about people of all ages, communing, playing, celebrating, working and learning together, letting each other into their lives and homes, and about the privacy and solitude that a social human being also craves. Another favorite,

94. Sleeping in public: It is a mark of success in a park, public lobby or a porch, when people can come there and fall asleep.


(A friend remarked that this is what gets you arrested these days, “for breathing while homeless,” then asked if he should get off his soap box. I said: “If your soap box isn’t comfortable enough to sleep on/in…”)

It’s no wonder that this Pattern Language is used in Permaculture design: it is all about niches for humans in society, built environments and nature, with a minimum of competition and a maximum of cooperation and joy. Published in 1977, the book is at times old-fashioned when it deals with materials and technologies, but it is for the most part timeless. And as an object it feels good: heavy in a handy way, 1171 thin, crackling pages, like a Bible, or the Kritik der reinen Vernunft, and of course I got it for my library. This website has all the patterns in their sequence if you want to explore.


What I am most interested in at this point is invitations.  How do you make a place inviting to potential visitors and even to the people who live there? That someone owns a place or works in one, that he walks in and out every day, doesn’t automatically mean they were invited in. The majority of buildings we live and work in are dead to some degree that no rugs or framed prints can make them alive. What to do with these buildings that already exist?

Alexander’s architecture is democratic: he wants the average person to be able to build, and rebuild.  His solutions are small ones, though they are not to be confused with easy ones, like the facile throw of a rug or the hanging whatever print is trendy – for those, consult Cosmopolitan or Martha Stewart. Alexander’s solution do require work, that is, thought and labor.  Raising pillars, creating ceiling vaults (with burlap!) and building bed nooks require tools (hammers, nails, hands), resources and some handiness. And often times it is clear that he takes it for granted that one person can’t do this: to reclaim our buildings from cheap functionality or cold self-aggrandizing, it takes a village…

There are some good things about our 1200 sq.f. 1950s ranch: it’s small and compact and by some lucky stroke it faces mostly south and the chimney runs down the middle of the house. But it’s so boxy and straight! I marvel at the lack of organic fluidity – no wonder I love my pudgy wood stove with its rounded corners. Slowly I will start working on this, rounding my house. But first, I want to make it more inviting.


105. South Facing Outdoors: People use open space if it is sunny, and do not use it if it isn’t, in all but desert climates.

This is perhaps the most important single fact about a building. If the building is placed right, the building and its garden will be happy places full of activity and laughter. If it is done wrong, then all the attention in the world, and the most beautiful details, will not prevent it from being a silent gloomy place. […] Always place buildings to the north of the outdoor spaces that go with them, and keep the outdoor spaces to the south. Never leave a deep band of shade between the building and the sunny part of the outdoors.


We do well by this pattern. Our house faces more or less south and it has a large stretch of land in front of it. We have a large stretch in the back as well and that is sunny too, since we have only a one story house which doesn’t cast much shade.


Nevertheless my observation over the last four years is that we hang out almost exclusively in the back. In the back is the screened-in porch (where we sometimes eat dinner), the paved  patio (more meals under the umbrella, grilling, and summer carpentry work), the small lawn (ripped up by too much badminton) and beyond that, at the edge of the trees, Amie’s play house. To the right is the shed and the kiwi trellis, which invites you to the chicken coop and the wood piles in the east. To the left, in the welcome shade and between the rampant hostas, are the rain barrels, and then, around the corner of the house  lies the vegetable garden to the west. All around the edge of all this activity is a rim of towering, mature oak and pine. Beyond our property line in the north there is a narrow wooded stretch of conservation land and then it goes down the wooded hill. We spot the lights of our neighbors down there only in winter when the trees are leafless.

All our outdoor activity then, all our play, work and food, happens in back.  None of it up front. When we come up from the street, either walking or driving up the driveway, we head inside or around back immediately. Most plants grown up front get watered last or are downright neglected. The two rain barrels I had up front are used last. I’ve written about the challenge of this area before.


view south-west from our living room window

When it’s warm we keep the “official” front door from our balcony straight into our living room open, but that and this view out the window is about all the interaction we have with that huge stretch of property south of us. Why is that?  It has to do, in part, with pattern 106.


106. Outdoor spaces which are merely “left over” between buildings will, in general, not be used.

There are two fundamentally different kinds of outdoor space: negative space and positive space. Outdoor space is negative when it is shapeless, the residue left behind when buildings – which are generally viewed as positive – are placed on the land. An outdoor space is positive when it has a distinct and definite shape, as definite as the shape of a room, and when its shape is as important as the shapes of the buildings which surround it.  […] Negative spaces are so poorly defined that you cannot really tell where their boundaries are, and to the extent that you can tell, the shapes are nonconvex. […] Make all the outdoor spaces which surround and lie between buildings positive. Give each some degree of enclosure; surround each space with wings of buildings, trees hedges, arcades and trellised walks, until it becomes an entity with a positive quality and does not spill out indefinitely around corners.


All the positive space on our property is behind the house, where one has a feeling of safe and well-defined enclosure by shed, planters and trellis, treeline and fence lined by berry bushes. The space in the front of the house on the contrary is ill-defined.


Upon approach up the driveway a large asphalt circle opens up with to the left the bisection of the property by the long, straight length of the house. Turn west and in front of the house is an open space hardly dissected by an amorphous medicinal flower bed, a weedy slope downward with toward more weeds, some trees along side. The only things that draw your eye when you’re up near the front are the three beehive boxes to the west.


When you look up at our house on the hill from the street the negative aspect of this space is even more evident:


It looks better in Spring, like this:


Still, this picture is a case in point, as the only time we actually get to enjoy this view is when we walk down there to take a picture. The solution, then, is to turn all this wasted space into positive space by giving it more definition, by dividing it up and enclosing it with soft edges punctured with inviting gateways and entrances. How we’ll do that involves some more patterns.


Four year summary coming soon (I know, I keep promising)

This is the Riot for the months of November and December 2012 for, mostly, the three of us. My summary of our first three years is here. Edson fixed the calculator: all go tither to crunch those numbers!

Gasoline.  Calculated per person. There were two trips, one to Providence, one to NYC, which brought up our usual consumption of gasoline:

17.7 gallons per person

43.1% of the US National Average

Electricity. This is reckoned per household, not per person. We cook on an electric stove. According to our solar meter, we produced 6897 kWh since the system was turned on, that’s only 420 kWh over the last two months (makes sense, these being the darkest months – compare to 302 in October, 615 kW in August – you can follow our solar harvest live here). It was also the first time I had to pay NStar  – meaning the credit we gathered last year through our overproduction is finished. The bill came to $1.38! This means we used 420  + 58 kW (November) + 207 kWh (December) =  685 kW for two months, which is

342 kwH monthly

18.9% of the US National Average

Heating Oil and Warm Water. This too is calculated for the entire household, not per person. This is for heating water and space heating, which we mostly do with our wood stove, except for the guestroom (thermostat at 45F – no guests in there, obviously), at night and when we’re not home (thermostat at 59F).  In December the temperatures finally started dropping and we had to turn on the heat. This number is going to change soon because we’re going solar hot water soon (but the Riot calculator, I now see, has no provision for solar hot water).

18.5 gallons of oil

30% of the US National Average

Trash. After recycling and composting this usually comes down to mainly food wrappers, though this month there was some unfortunately not-recyclable packaging of holiday gifts, so I’m adding a pound per person to our usual.

7 lbs. pp per month

5.2% of the US National Average

Water. This is calculated per person. We used more than in November and October, but still, this is about our usual.

481 gallons pp.

16 % of the US National Average

The Thirteenth Moon

Even if you have lost heart
She puts a tide in you
Even if you have lost heart
You will be moved
You will be all lined up
The soil has tides
Bedrock has tides
The horizon heaves
She will drag even you

“That turns out to be a place where it’s just it and me.
When I wrote that, it occurred to me that that is how – in solitude –  many seek their god(s) and that that is how I used to experience spiritually during rich introspective times in my life, before all this came down, before Transition.  Why had I lost sight of that? This is why: I forgot it in my sudden rush to act, which soon turned into a full-blown desire to save the world, which meant, of course, coming out of my solitude.
It turns out that what I thought I had to do (save the world) is not my role. These last few months, I have been letting go of the wish to save the world. Being the committed activist that I still am, and still a seeker of joy-even-though-I-have-considered-all-the-facts, and still a believer in my power to change things, there can be only one thing that could make me give that up:  I let go of the hope that the world is, at all, savable.
As I write this, I am amazed at how easy it is to say that. It wasn’t easy coming to accept it.
Here, ask yourself: what is it that you most cherish, that you most want and might even have? Ask yourself: why won’t I give it up?  Because you made it or worked for it? Because you deserve it and it makes you happy, maybe even makes you you? Consider any of those reasons, and any others. Then ask yourself:
So what?
Do you dare to test
the endurance of your hope
To take it to that far place
where still it refuses to leave
or maybe not.
Where, regardless,
it turns out to be
not what you wanted,
but what you need.


After too many estimates but wonderful and very instructive conversations with installers, we have committed to going solar for our hot water. We got our shade report that tells us that our solar effect of 95.35% qualifies us for the State rebate (minimum requirement is 75%). Our solar fraction is 73.1% which means that solar will provide that portion of your hot water on an annual basis, but this is calculated on the average hot water usage here in New England, so I’m sure we’ll do even better.

Our greatest delay was figuring out what to use as secondary backup. The most straightforward was to run two heat exchangers through the hot water tank: one to the solar array, one to our oil-fired furnace. Obviously we looked into electrical backup alternatives because we have solar PV. These were (1) running the second exchanger to an  (electrical) heat pump, (2) a second, electrical tank, possibly on demand, (3) going with one heat exchanger and one electrical coil. But it turned out that our overproduction would possibly not cover the secondary energy needed and might even tip us over quite a bit. So after all that research we are sticking with the oil backup. If later on we want to change to electrical, it will be easy to refurbish.

As for more details: It’s a drain-back SECUSOL system, made by Wagner, with two flat-plate collectors and one 92 gallon tank. The installer is applying for a monitoring system (which the State would pay for), but as this system has already been monitored (and gets the highest rating), there is only a slim chance of getting it. Would be neat, though: we love data!

As for the cost, we’ll recalculate once the system is up (takes about 6 weeks), but if there are no surprises it will be $8000 – $2000 (State rebate: 25% of the cost up to $3500) – $1800 (30% Federal tax credit) = $4200. That’s much cheaper than the solar PV ($18,290 after incentives), but because we’re such frugal users of hot water and because there are no SRECS for solar hot water, it’ll take us longer to pay off this system (about 14 years versus the 8 for the PV).  It’s still worth it, though.




This poem is evolving as I try to explain my growing insight into what hope is and what my role is in this world. I started it here.
    Do you dare to test
    the endurance of your hope
    To take it to that far place
    where still it refuses to leave
    or maybe not.
    Where, regardless,
    it turns out to be
    not what you wanted,
    but what you need.

virginsmallI feel like I’ve gained some clarity in the last few months, but it has been hard to write about it. Every time I sit down to start, the task seems impossible. So let me break it down into pieces – events, insights, decisions, changes in plans.

The first evening when all of my thinking and reading actually “came together” was the evening I decided to leave my church (Unitarian Universalist). I can’t remember what came first in the process: the sudden flare of insight (this is what it all means, this is how it all hangs together), the insight that leaving the church is one of the things I need to do because of this new insight, or the very act of emailing the people in the congregation I care most about – good friends, fortunately, also outside of church – and taking the step. All I remember was the immense empowerment of seeing an insight emerge out of many strands of thought, feeling and soul-searching, and acting on it. Sadness too, that this newly emerging insight meant that I had to give up something that I cherished (and that it wouldn’t be the last thing I will need to give up). And, lastly, awesome too, because I had felt uncomfortable with this cherished “membership” for while, and now here it was: the reason why!

So, as to the reason why.
I work with a vision of our predicament all day long. All my thinking, reading and writing are related to it, and my activism, and nowadays also every act of mothering, shopping, cooking, doing laundry-you name it. I am now at a stage that I carry this vision with me at all times and nothing escapes it. It is empowering, frightening and often exhausting.  It is not a comforting vision, though it does allow me or actually inspires in me, a kind of  joyfulness. I call this Joyfulness Notwithstanding.
I need a place where I can keep my Joyfulness Notwithstanding alive and cultivate it. How? Not by retreating to a place where I can forget that vision for a while, but on the contrary by actively stepping into a place where I can look at it clearly.
That turns out to be a place where it’s just it and me.
And so a place where I do not have to discuss/justify the vision and where I am not confronted with circumstances that I feel are part of the problem and that automatically bring out the activist in me. Working to eliminate paper cups during coffee hours is fulfilling work for me as an activist, and as an activist, I want to keep working with the congregation on these issues. But it greatly muddles my spiritual clarity.

Back in the day when this was a Mama blog, I used to report so often on Amie’s art and drawing. There is a whole series about her early drawings on  here, somewhere  (enter “drawing” in the search engine). It caught the attention of Brent and Marjory Wilson, who wrote about Amie in the new foreword to the new edition of their classic, Teaching Children to Draw.  Amie still draws, but there so many other things in her busy seven-year-old life, like playing with her friends and the chickens in the garden, that this once-a-day occurrence/sometimes-obsession has been put on the back burner. That she still has the knack, though, became clear today, when she brought home this self-portrait from school:

I was truly blown away by it. What a kind face!

There has been a major change in my thinking/feeling about our culture, our future, and my role. An upheaval big enough for me to burn some bridges (to set fire to them, at least), to shed some tears. Well. Good things are happening too as a result of it, I hasten to add. Clarity is one of them. I hope I can write about it soon. But in the meantime, here’s part of another poem I am working on.

Do you dare to test

the endurance of your hope?

To take it to that far place

where still it refuses to leave

or maybe not.